06 May, 2008

I watched with glee

Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities
–Voltaire
I watch with glee
While your kings and queens
Fought for ten decades
For the gods they made
         Sympathy for the Devil,
Rolling Stones
I like Pascal, I really do. He was a great scientist. But he was also, I think, a big pussy.
You heard me. Blaise Pascal was a big pussy and I don’t care who knows it. And it isn’t because math is not my strong suit. It has nothing to do with math.
It has something to do with what is commonly known as Pascal’s Wager. See, Pascal wasn’t just a mathematician. Like lots of people back in the day (it was a Wednesday, by the way) Pascal was sort of a Jack-of-all-Trades. I would say he was a Renaissance Man, but he lived after the renaissance and before the fairs.
He was also a scientist [indeed, it seems most all of the mathematicians back then were just scientists who needed better equations with which to model the universe] and a philosopher. Specifically, a religious philosopher. It was when he was wearing this hat that he came up with his wager.
I am not a mathematician, I can’t say it loud enough. I barely made a B in Calculus and Diff Eq looks like it will keep my GPA at a 3.0 when it comes to math. But I don’t give up. Pascal gave up, and that is why I think he is a pussy. He couldn’t figure something out and so instead of shelving it until he had more data or more time or just being content with not knowing, he laid out an argument for belief without proof.
Not faith, mind you, but a wager. Not that I am a big proponent of faith, but given a choice between faith and bullshit, I’d say faith is the lesser of the two evils. This wager didn’t take into consideration all the relevant data, and that is why it is bullshit. And yet, because it came from a genius, people assume it is a sound argument and a safe bet.
Pascals wager was whether to believe in ‘God’ or not. He made a four quadrant table, and listed the benefits and cost of each side of the story. He figured that if he believed and God did exist, the reward would be great. If he did not believe and God existed, the punishment would be extreme. If he did not believe and God did not exist, he would not gain much except his Sundays. If he did believe and God did not exist, he would not have lost much. Based on this, he rationalized it was better to believe than not to believe.
I think his argument is faulty in many ways.
First, he discounted the possibility that a god could exist that was not the god of the ruling party at the time. Hellfire and damnation might not be a punishment, and heavenly bliss might not be a reward. It might be based on things other than belief or disbelief.
Second, he discounted the fact that if he believed and God did not exist then he was blinding himself to the Truth. A willful ignorance of the truth is the greatest evil in my book, because it damages my ability to deal with reality. No scientist should thus shackle themselves.
Thirdly, he discounted the fact that if he believed only through prudence and a God did exist, then surely that omniscient Being would see through the ruse and no reward for faith would be forthcoming.
I am not against variations of Pascal’s wager. In examining upcoming battles one always looks at the enemy’s most likely courses of action and contrasts them to the most damaging courses of action an enemy could take. Only idiots plan a battle wearing rose colored sunglasses.
Risk management is all about reducing the consequences of necessary actions and of taking the most prudent action (cost versus benefit) given the data at hand.
But if someone is going to choose to believe in a higher power they should not do it just to hedge their bets. There is no reason to force oneself to believe. Doubt is not the enemy of faith. Certainty is a far more dangerous adversary.
So much atrocity has been committed in the name of some God. The final argument I have against Pascal is that he reasoned that nothing bad could come from believing.
I know better.
The world is full of people willing to use someone’s naivetè of faith to convince them that some course of action is what ‘God’ wants. The Inquisition, the Crusades, and the annihilation of the native American people (manifest destiny) were all done for the glory of some little tin God.
Don’t believe the hype.

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